No, there's no such thing as husband poetry. I mean my husband asked me to teach him more about poetry. My husband felt there were decided holes in his education, but I thought surely somewhere in junior high or high school a dedicated teacher must have taught him some famous verse. He swears he remembers nothing of the sort. Thus, three months ago, my husband picked up a volume of Emily Bronte poetry and determined to understand what he read.
He was already a decided Bronte sisters' admirer, so likability wasn't an issue. What did become an issue was rhyme scheme and syllable structure. So what to do? Consult with your English teacher wife of course. As he read poetry before bed each evening, he began to ask me questions like Why does this line have eight syllables and this one has ten?
I know, I know. Nerd alert. How many married couples talk like this before falling asleep? Anyway, I began by asking him not only to count syllables in every line, but to also determine if there was a pattern. How many lines are in the overall poem, sweetie? Did you say 14? So what type of poem is that? What was Bronte imitating? Pretty soon I realized we needed to start at the beginning. All the intelligent Rush lyrics of his youth bred a natural appreciation for poetry and the lyrical art, but that didn't mean he understood the required skills or genius of the poet's work.
This is what we've learned so far in the poetry journey:
STEP ONE: Read poetry you like, poetry you're drawn to. Each person has their own taste of course. Bronte did that for him as did Frost and Seamus Heaney.
STEP TWO: Break apart the poem skeleton. This is tricky because if you spend too much time identifying parts you can also remove the pleasure of reading for the beauty of the thing. At the same time without the knowledge of parts it's hard to appreciate the whole. Think of the human skeleton. Knowing the parts of the body that frame it and allow it to stand and move increases our appreciation of its overall appearance.
STEP THREE: Find a teaching text that's written at your level. Perhaps the most difficult creature to find, an instructional book is a necessary thing unless you already have an English teacher spouse at your side. From homeschooling curricula to college-level texts, there are too many choices. I've read quite a few that make poetry more difficult and even more that make it too simple. The trick is to find the one that fits you. As an adult learner, my husband didn't want a middle school beginner though he was willing. Instead we went entirely old school. Why not learn from two distinguished Yale professors?
MY TOP RECOMMENDATION
Understanding Poetry by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. It's no longer in print but is a valuable text if you find one. You can learn so much from reading just two chapters on narrative and descriptive poems. Brooks and Warren include plenty of examples AND include their commentary on how the poem works and what it means. So, so helpful to learn from their wealth of experience. Brooks also has his own poetry textbook titled The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. Though I haven't read it yet, it comes with high reviews.
And as a bonus, read Dwight Longenecker's essay "Why You Need Poetry." He provides much needed motivation for why poetry benefits our minds, ourselves, as a creative outlet.
Romans 1:9-12 (CJB)
For God, whom I serve in my spirit by spreading the Good News about his Son, is my witness that I regularly remember you in my prayers; and I always pray that somehow, now or in the future, I might, by God’s will, succeed in coming to visit you. For I long to see you, so that I might share with you some spiritual gift that can make you stronger — or, to put it another way, so that by my being with you, we might, through the faith we share, encourage one another.
In verse 11, Paul simply says sharing our spiritual gifts make us stronger. In verse 12, Paul says his presence, that is being together and being of the same faith, encourages us.
We share our faith. We share our gifts with each other. We are strengthened. We are encouraged.
When I shared this message in our school chapel, I asked the littles on the first few rows how we encourage one another. One girl said she could offer a compliment, like how she liked my hair. A second grader said we could play together. I then asked how we can encourage someone who is sick or sad. One student said we could wait and then ask them to play when they feel better! It seems that play time is important, or I would add time together is.
In Romans 2, Paul speaks of a circumcised heart. It’s a heart that is actively listening to God, soft and responsive, not hard like Pharoah’s. It’s set apart for God, dedicated wholly to Him. It longs for what He longs for, and it is why I think we are able to encourage one another and respond to one another as He would.
Growing up, I would describe my older sister and myself as bookworms. In the summer, I brought home twenty books a week! Or at least, I think it was twenty. Once I was able to read chapter books, we could share and compare books. We both brought home stacks from our school libraries. Bobsey Twins, Nancy Drew, Narnia, Hardy Boys. I even binged my way through every Louis L’Amour in my junior high school library.
One afternoon I brought home a new Hardy Boys and left it on my bedroom desk for after chores and dinner. But when I returned to grab it, it was gone! I was positive I had left it on the school bus until . . . my sister emerged from her room with it. I reacted immediately in anger, with a flare of injustice I’m sure, and we promptly began a tug of war. In Hebrew react means to answer by hitting back or striking with words. I know I chose sin in that moment, and I am sure I sinned more than once with my mouth and my actions before our mom intervened. My heart was not responsive to God but quite hard.
In Hebrew, the word respond is hinneni or hinnen meaning “here I am.” It shows a yielded heart.
Consider young Samuel as a boy serving Eli the priest in the temple. In I Samuel 3:3-4, The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called Samuel, and he said, “Here I am!” Samuel did not act in fear or react in emotion.
In Exodus 3, Moses saw the burning bush. I’m sure he was stunned in the moment and possibly fearful. When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.”
And after all the consequences Isaiah declared to Israel, he may have been weary and could easily have been embittered, yet he responded in Isaiah 6:8, And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.”
Yes, response is a choice, and yes, we won't always choose well. But I do want to choose what God would choose for me because I trust Him. I trust His love for me. I choose to respond instead of react to people and things because I want to keep a soft heart, one that listens to Him every part of every day.
A man of the theatre . . .
It was a classic when it was first published in 1949, but it remains a classic because it is one-of-a-kind. Marchette Chute’s Shakespeare of London is absolutely the best biography because of her approach.
Chute essentially crafted the story of Shakespeare’s life from a paper trail, from wherever she could find town records, lease arrangements, tax papers, theatre programs, personal letters, and really anything in print. She creates a holistic picture of the time period in Stratford-upon-Avon and in London while effectively showing the complexity of the London stage.
Chute writes about how Shakespeare’s arrival in London was perfectly timed as the theatres themselves were just blossoming: “William Shakespeare brought great gifts to London, but the city was waiting with gifts of its own to offer him. The root of his genius was his own but it was London that supplied him with favoring weather.”
This is no encyclopedic list of chronologies but the real lives of Shakespeare, James Burbage, Edward Alleyn, and others who made up the Chamberlain’s Men. As readers, we learn of Shakespeare’s family, the myriad skills of successful actors, the competitive nature of playwrights and theatre companies, and the dictates and pleasures of theatre-lover Queen Elizabeth and her Master of Revels.
In fact, one of my favorite parts is that Shakespeare apparently was a man of integrity:
. . . he was a relaxed and happy man, almost incapable of taking offense. He did not participate in any of the literary feuds of the period, which . . . were particularly numerous in the Elizabethan age, with its delighted talent for invective.” He worked almost twenty years in London without friction or any major offense because he had a “natural good temper and instinctive courtesy."
Perhaps the greatest praise I could give is that Chute is a delight to read. Yes, the sheer number of dates, names, and details could be overwhelming, yet the reader doesn't feel it. With a fluid narrative, Chute has produced a fascinating wealth of research in a most readable form.
*Younger readers will also enjoy her Introduction to Shakespeare and Stories from Shakespeare.
OBEDIENCE IS A SERIOUS THING. The Book of Judges clearly speaks of an absolute obedience that brings peace and blessing. In Judges 2:1-4 and 6:8-10, God sent both an angel and an unnamed prophet to remind the Israelites that they had not obeyed His voice. What a distinction! Obedience is not just about obeying the laws or rules—it’s about hearing God’s voice.
True, the laws that God gave His people are His voice at this time, along with His messengers, but would the people listen and walk in His way as their fathers had? (2:22). Previously in Deuteronomy, Moses explained that God’s law was no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land (32:47). Think of that. Your very life. But His people were forgetful and many times did not choose to listen, to follow, to obey.
Whenever a judge arose who was aware of God’s covenant and who led the people in hearing and obeying God, the people enjoyed peace in the land for a few years or even forty. Consider Gideon. Although he was timid in personality and quite unsure of himself at first, Gideon was able to obey God. Yes, he was the least of the least, and yes, he questioned God's angel, but once he truly knew God was speaking to him, he obeyed. What mercy. God allowed Gideon to question. God gave him time. God even allowed Gideon to test Him twice, and most amazingly, God equipped Gideon to bring deliverance to His people, for the Spirit of the Lord clothed and covered him (6:32). It's almost as if once he knew he was chosen, once he knew without doubt that God was with him, then Gideon was able to choose obedience with ease.
But Gideon wasn't the only one. Once God's angel appeared, Manoah and his barren wife obeyed God, followed the Nazirite vows, and were blessed with the birth of Samson and his siblings (16:31). Here, Samson was raised with a purpose--to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines (13:5).
Yet Samson was far from obedient. He lied, murdered, retaliated, wreaked vengeance, manipulated, and contaminated, yet God was with him. Mercy again. He was destined from before conception to save Israel (13:5), and God used him as a tangible show of strength and power to weaken the Philistines and strengthen the Israelites. But Samson may not have fulfilled the breadth of God’s plan because of his poor choices (eating from a carcass and making himself and his parents ceremonially unclean, entanglements with three Philistine women, et al). These choices and others impacted his effectiveness—twenty years of peace versus forty or more (16:31).
Most of all, I wonder if this mutt mix of obedience, forgetfulness, and sin symbolized his own people. Like them, He did not know that the Lord had left him (16:20) until too late. What could he have done, how could God have used him if Samson had wholly obeyed by hearing God's voice for himself?
originally published November 2016
MOST OF MY STUDENTS would like to do other things than read a few chapters of required reading of an evening. For any literature teacher, what’s worse is that they can easily find free poem, chapter, novel, and play summaries with great ease online. After all, summaries are so much shorter, aren’t they?
So one of my first tasks of the year is to appeal to their integrity with a lesson from the Psalms. Let’s start with this. If I read a summary of a chapter in the Bible, what do I lose? Consider Psalm 23. This version comes to us from Shmoop:
The Lord (God) acts as a shepherd to the speaker. He makes sure the speaker isn't lacking any necessities. The Lord takes the speaker to peaceful and relaxing places, like green fields and calm waters. He also tends to spiritual well-being, making sure that the speaker stays on the right path. . . . This happy state of affairs will continue for the rest of the speaker's life, and beyond. He doesn't ever plan to leave the protection of his host and shepherd.
It’s a summary alright, but where’s the richness? Where is the personal sense of me being the sheep? Adonai is my shepherd. He’s not a neutral speaker unless David somehow knew of political correctness. What happened to vivid verbs like leads, guides, refreshes, comforts? With David, I feel the certainty of his prayer. Adonai prepares a feast before me publicly in the presence of my enemies. How is that a happy state of affairs? Does the summary even capture the essence, the flavor, the mood of David’s perspective? I am anointed by God, and his love and goodness practically chase me. I know like David that I can abide with God, dwell with Him. Not leaving his protection sounds so shallow.
This type of example is simple and clear. It's more than a matter of wording. It's as if the summary reduces not just the number of words but the intention and truth behind them. The experience of reading the word of God simply cannot be redacted or it's no longer reading the word.
In the same way, the experience of reading literature is just that—an experience. Shortcuts cheat us. The wealth of reading remains with us just like living moments do. Reading allows us to walk through, to live beside, to express, to imagine within the lives of others.
OR WHY WE SHOULD SEE LIVE PERFORMANCES. Yesterday, our entire high school of 125 students and a handful of teachers saw Thornton Wilder's play Our Town at a local university, free I might add. For a play written in 1938, it is indeed a snapshot of its time approaching mid-century America post World War I and the Great Depression. After a country had seen so much loss of life and the loss of quality of life, it was no wonder that a certain hopelessness invaded the story. In essence, Wilder simplistically depicted the passing of time in the place and people of Grover's Corner, Americana.
Yes, Americana. It is predictable and normal and mundane, and the characters are every bit flat and stereotypical. But that's intentional. Surely all of us can identify with the bright student, the champion baseball player, the town drunk, the mom who makes thousands of meals in her lifetime.
When I asked some of my students about the performance and story, I heard some unexpected things. "Mrs. Norvell, I didn't like it. There wasn't any real hope, not in a spiritual way at least. I mean, I get the message from the cemetery people, like appreciate the present and the details in life, but it felt so hopeless. Like, do the dead people just forget everything, and that's it?"
And that is why such a performance is critical. Here this young man observed, not read, that a REAL hope was absent. Here he discerned the apathy of an atheist or the absence of eternity. And I think he fairly questioned the wisdom of such lives, living without hope in God.
This live performance did more than just bring life to the imagination. The experience itself brought a reality to bear because it cemented his personal belief that his choice of Christ was indeed the way, the truth, the life, not some vague hope that things would just work out.
Yes, I realize that Wilder was both praising the simple life and criticizing America. I know he hoped to turn his audience to living an appreciated life, but he missed something. In 1956, the Paris Review published an interview with the Pulitzer prize winner. Wilder admitted that most of his plays and novels dealt with one or two ideas. The most dominant one was his
unresting preoccupation with the surprise of the gulf between each tiny occasion of the daily life and the vast stretches of time and place in which every individual plays his role. By that I mean the absurdity of any single person’s claim to the importance of his saying, “I love!” “I suffer!” when one thinks of the background of the billions who have lived and died, who are living and dying, and presumably will live and die.
Wilder was and is right. Perspective is necessary. Unselfishness is a virtue. But maybe he lost sight of the individual, the one created in God's image and the one created for eternal life, in the midst of the crowd of common men.
Consistency might be the web virtue I most admire . . .
AS A CLASSICAL EDUCATOR, I may have a more limited online reading list than most teachers. Sometimes I follow a blog for six months or so to get a feel for a writer’s perspective or selfishly just to see if there’s a personal benefit to me. Many times I unfollow after a time and move on, but these three sites have been a consistent intellectual meat source over the years:
For the classical educator, parent, or student, for those who value like-mindedness as well as challenges, this is my favorite site for well-reasoned articles with a touch of pith, earnestness, and spiritual heart.
For all things historical, for all things of deep thought, for all things of an academic nature, this is my go-to. I have found some of the best information here for my senior students as they prepare for thesis each year, AND I have discovered several other professors and writers to follow.
Well, when you don’t have cable or even when you do, I can’t imagine life without PBS and its regular shows. Masterpiece Theatre, Nova, Newshour, This Old House, and so many more add to my view of the world, and I feel, expand me personally. Quality television is important to me, and this website provides so much beyond that for lifelong learners and teachers.
It might be more entertaining to tell you which websites and blogs I no longer follow, and why of course, but I think consistency might be the web virtue I most admire. It is the most difficult to attain and maintain.
Which websites do you value? Which ones add to your life and work?
"She was illumined, and a Muse was born . . ."
WHEN WE THINK OF LOVE SONNETS, most of us think of the sappy ooze of lyricists or the flavorless mush in greeting cards. But when they were first written in the 14th century, their intent was much different.
It all began with Francesco Petrarch in 1304. Like his predecessor Dante, Petrarch was a devout Catholic. He too was exiled from Italy with his family due to civil unrest. Once in France, Petrarch’s father had a successful law practice, and the family prospered, so much so that he arranged the best education money could buy at the time—private tutors. By age 16, Petrarch dutifully followed in his father’s footsteps and studied law first at Montpelier then at Bologna.
Legend tells that since his father was supplying an allowance to Petrarch, he often made surprise visits at university. One such afternoon, Petrarch was quietly reading a book in his rented room when his father suddenly arrived. Enraged at the number of books Petrarch had purchased with his allowance, he promptly threw them out of the window and into the street below.
Now throwing around books at this time was no light matter. Before the printing press, many books were hand-copied and sewn together at great cost. If the story is indeed true, Petrarch likely spent a month’s allowance on one book alone. His personal library held copies of Homer’s Iliad, Cicero's Rhetoric, as well as Virgil’s Aeneid, all of which he loved dearly. Meanwhile, his father set fire to the small stash in the middle of the street. Any passerby would know the value of that fire, and naturally disheartened, within a few months Petrarch quit law school and promptly announced he was going to be a writer and poet and take his ecclesiastical orders. Some biographers say that his father died before he could quit; others that Petrarch was simply dissatisfied with the untruthfulness of the law as a whole.
Petrarch did pursue his minor orders and began to write, and this is where the sonnet as a form was born. The story he tells lies in Sonnet 3. He was in Avignon at service on Good Friday in 1327, "the day the sun's ray had turned pale," a day of “universal woe,” when a light from the cathedral window shone on a woman rows in front of him. It was Laura de Sade, who was already wed or soon to be by most accounts. She was illumined, and a Muse was born. They likely never met or spoke from that moment, but Petrarch wrote hundreds of sonnets about her and to her.
The thing is Petrarch was not some obsessive stalker, but a man instead who knew love in a different way. That God revealed her to him on Good Friday was everything. For him, Petrarch's unrequited love for Laura was about directing his soul, "From her to you comes loving thought that leads, as long as you pursue, to highest good . . ." (Sonnet 13).
for the complete article, please see Petrarch's Love Sonnets at The Imaginative Conservative.
FIRST LOVE. FIRST AID. FIRST LADY. FIRST BASE. FIRST BITE. FIRST FLIGHT. FIRST LIGHT.
Centuries ago the word first came from the word forma, meaning going before all others, chief, principal. It was a title or a physical position in Old English, German, and Dutch. You were the chief or the first of your tribe. It was a noun, not an adjective like it is today. I wonder if being an adjective makes it less important.
Monday was the first day of school for my family and for me as a teacher. Facebook and Instagram were filled with family pictures from near and far this week, celebrating those firsts. So what is it that makes us mark and celebrate the first days of life events? Not every first is pleasant you know. And when you get old enough, you've had lots of firsts.
First days are a blend of excitement, newness, anxiety, and dread even. Whether the first day of school for the very first time, the first day on a job, or the first day home from the hospital, it marks a transition, a time of moving from one season to the next. We may have many first days in life but only one like that day. That fact alone makes it worth celebrating. There aren’t any repeats, and it doesn’t last long because the second day is quickly approaching.
In Matthew, Jesus encourages us not to be anxious or worry about the day, its needs, our needs, its problems, our problems. We can’t add an hour to the day by our worry, even first days. Our heavenly Father knows each need. Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Read Matthew 6. Provision, trust, forgiveness, His goodness in every part of any day—these are given to us.
I pray that we can see first days and the in-between days for what they are—God's gifts.
Jane Eyre is a perennial novel for me.
Yes, I teach it every year, but more importantly, I reread it every time. Not just a skim. A full read. And this is why.
1. Jane is a character of such growth. I know, I know. Bronte includes much of her own life and experiences in the novel, so maybe Jane isn’t so original after all. It doesn’t matter to me. At age 8, Charlotte Bronte was sent to a horrible school for poor clergymen’s daughters, and her two oldest sisters died of tuberculosis within six months. That was reality, and it also happens to make great drama. How do you survive and continue after that? Well, that’s Jane’s plight and saga to tell, and it absorbs me entirely each time.
2. Jane Eyre is a story of spiritual metamorphosis. From a loveless, relationless childhood where God is wielded as a threat to time spent at a Christian charity orphanage where the gospel of privation and public humiliation are standardized, Jane changes. Her heart may be hardened to Aunt Reed for a time, but through the influence of Helen Burns and Miss Temple, her view of the present and the eternal begins to change. What’s more is that through her budding relationship with Mr. Rochester, Jane’s morality deepens as it is tested. She is tempted to remain at Thornfield as Rochester’s mistress but chooses to flee instead without knowing her future. It’s as if she is reinstated as an orphan. Yet beseeching God first and foremost, Jane sets off and through time and choice is returned to her love, her person, a more righteous character than at her beginning.
3. Gothic drama and mystery are a perfect setting. How I enjoy the mysterious with Gothic flare! From Bronte’s first chapter where Jane is sent to the Red Room in fear of ghosts to the eerie Grace Poole and an insane woman in the attic, Bronte creates a place of doubt where her readers wonder about reality and the supernatural. That dramatic contrast is full-on Gothic style—places and persons of fear contradicting places of light and peace. The practical Jane gets to discover it all and see the truth.
4. Bronte wrote a best seller. It was a success for her, her publisher, and female authors of her time (and ours!). Book critics raved, writing about her “noble purpose,” the story’s freshness, originality, and power. The Liverpool Standard declared, “the writer has evidently studied well the human heart.” Yes, the key characters are dynamic, but then the miraculous happens, so frequently in fact, that I wonder who in the Victorian era could think this story was relatable. Yet it is that improbability that makes the novel likeable. I think of how God rescues us, and I can see why Bronte created a long-lost benevolent uncle with money to spare. Never mind if it isn’t realistic. Our hope surges as we read, and I cheer for Jane because I want the best for her, I want her to love and be loved, and most of all, because Bronte has made her real.
5. A deepening love is one of the hardest to describe because it is active and changing as you read, yet the first infatuation is also real. We are with Rochester in the library as he shares bluntly with Jane. We are with them as they walk the gardens and pause under the great chestnut. The first sign of fascination and love might be shallow, but it must be if that love will ever deepen. What’s more, as the audience, we are more entranced because we know the truth before Jane does. We play the “what if” game with Rochester. Could the wedding actually happen? When it doesn’t, we are crushed for them even though we’re glad the truth is known. Soon after, as Jane prays and hears from God, she must choose a life without love for a time. It’s a desert and a trial. But as she heals physically and emotionally, Jane grows and recognizes her life is empty without the friend who is part of her soul. Yes, St. John offers “love” and companionship of a sort, but her heart knows it would be incomplete. When she hears Rochester’s voice on the moors calling for her, she responds from within, a cry from spirit to spirit. It is then that Jane knows her heart and her readiness to return, to be complete: “Wherever you are is my home” (283). [New York: Penguin Classics, 2006)
reposted from September 2016